Right before the Spanish Conquerors arrived to what now is known as Peru, a war facing two brothers was happening in the area. They were Huascar and Atahualpa. At the time of the Spanish Conquest of South America, these two brothers were fighting amongst them for the reign of their father. They fought for the control of what had become a huge territory controlled by only one group, the Incas.
This was the context that Francisco Pizarro found when disembarked at Peru. It was a complex process that started long time ago, on the times when the Incas arrived to the area where nowadays is found Cuzco. At that time, the Incas had to share the land with other groups that were inhabiting the area. They went through many wars against other local groups and these conflicts continued until Pachacutek, the Inca that turned the balance of power in their favour. From that moment Pachacutek started conquering territory for his people. This group of people that are nowadays called Incas built an incredible Empire that lasted for more than 100 years.
But how come it ended on a civil war between two brothers? How come they got to the point of almost destroying themselves by battling between them and killing their own families? The reason behind has a lot to do with the Panacas and their influence within the Inca hierarchy.
The Panacas were groups of power which had political influence on essential decisions such as who was going to be the next Inca, decisions regarding war, organisation within the cities, the regions, religion and so on.
These groups of power were formed around the dead Incas that had reigned the Tahuantinsuyu (this is the name of the region controlled by the Incas). These groups of influence were formed on a matriarchal system which started from the mum of the dead Inca or the Inca that arrived to power. The blood family tree connected to the Inca’s mum formed the Panaca. These groups of power inhabited Cuzco or the surroundings and they were numerous.
They covered different functions but the main one was to take care of the mummy of the dead Inca. Once they died, the Incas were converted into mummies, and these mummies were treated as living Gods. These living Gods had a voice and therefore could influence on the decisions of government. These influencing groups or Panacas became their communicators.
To explain clearly the Panaca, it is important to understand that these mummies were treated as living beings, with magical powers, able to turn decisions and Gods against the population. The mummies were therefore respected profoundly by the nation. Even the Inca that was in power had profound respect for the dead Incas and therefore he listened to what they had to say.
During the year, there were certain dates which were really important for seeding, harvesting and so on. Rituals and festivities were celebrated on those days. During some of these festivities, the mummies were taken on processions and all the Panacas were accompanying them. The members of these groups were preparing them for the occasion and looking after them during the festivity.
On various occasions, when an Inca died, political conflicts arisen for choosing next Inca. In the hierarchical system in which the Incas believed, the crown was not always passing from father to son. At times, it was passed to other family members or simply to those that were “more prepared” to become next Inca. Obviously, the decision on whom was “better prepared” to be next Inca could be interpreted subjectively, and provably often this was what happened.
Every Panaca group had an interest in influencing decisions regarding next Inca and most provably they tried to bring up their chosen candidate. To have their candidate in power could make them gain more political influence, land, wealth and so on. It was an instinct for survival, an instinct for maintaining its high standard of living conditions, which they did not want to lose or see it reduced.
When Huayna Capac, father of Huascar and Atahualpa, died it is said that provably he had chosen his son as next Inca. At the time when he died, he was fighting in the North, where now is located Ecuador. He died and had no time to provably communicate to the high members of the nobility of his decision. Atahualpa had been a wonderful warrior and had made great conquests for the Tahuantinsuyo.
Huascar was the best located to become next Inca though. He most provably had the favour of some of the Panacas at the beginning. Nevertheless, he did not like the Panacas because they could influence his political decisions. It is possible that he detested to be forced to listen all the time to what they had to say in order to reach decisions about the government of the nation. At some point he threatened of burning the dead Incas’ mummies. This threat must had caused terrible feelings amongst the members of the Panacas, who as I said had gained a lot of power during the years, and who were not going to accept such a decision.
At the time of the start of the civil war, Huascar was at Cuzco and Atahualpa was at the North in Ecuador. Huascar seemed to have a stronger position as he had many men available for war and experienced military officials on his side. This is why it seems irrational that Atahualpa could win the war. This is one of the reasons why it is thought that the Panacas played a crucial part on the civil war.
As I stated above, some Panacas had become increasingly suspicious of Huascar and his future reign due to the rejection that they felt from him. Huascar mistake was not to think that to win the war he was going to need allies and people of influence on his side. Instead, he decided to act arrogantly. This events probably made him lose the war. He started losing battles, some of his military officials seemed to become incompetent taking wrong decisions on key moments of the conflict. Some of them deserted him and joined Atahualpa forces.
This definitely can be interpreted as some sort of political influence against Huascar. An influence that most provably came from some of the Panaca groups, who saw a threat on Huascar candidacy to next Inca. Atahualpa, on the other side, may had understood better the roles of these groups of influence and gained their friendship and support in this civil war.
The end of this story you provably know. Atahualpa won the war but did not have much time to enjoy victory. The conqueror Pizarro took over short time after these events and the Tahuantinsuyo disappeared forever. However, the Panacas contributed to the victory of Atahualpa, showing once again their political influence and power, demonstrating how essential were for the Inca’s reign.